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Just Beat It

The happy-joy-freedom feeling of drum circles



Under the glow of a full moon, drummers and dancers are beating and stomping around a pseudo campfire -- a large candle in a rock circle.

Some of the drummers in front of the Bank of America building are standing up; others are sitting on the ground or in lawn chairs. One drummer is straddling her instrument, while another taps a Star of David on his short and squat drum. A dancer in patchy jeans jigs with a tambourine, alongside a dancer over-utilizing her arms in hippy-sway glory. And then there are things that could only be categorized by other: a didgeridoo blower, a belly dancer, a fire dancer and a guy who may or may not be a ninja.

What has inspired this madness on a Saturday night in the square? The moon.

Steve Nelson first organized this gathering 10 years ago. Nelson bangs on a bronze gong, slightly larger than a Frisbee that produces the most resonating tone in the instrument jumble. The thunderous vibrations compete with the sound waves coming across Tryon Street from a guy singing modern gospel. In between the gong beats, words like "love" and "Jesus" fit into the noise machine like the perfect, nonsensical Dadist touch.

Anyone is invited to join, Nelson tells me. "You don't plan a particular beat or anything. You just let it happen. It happens organically. It's like getting in tune with the spirit of the time and the energy of the place. Whatever comes through comes through."

But what does the green ball of cheese have to do with it? At full moon, Nelson says, the earth is between the sun and the moon and the most energy is pulsating through the planet. Nelson compares feeding off the raw energy of the moon to surfing, warning against a wipe-out. "The whole game is to catch the wave and stay in equilibrium," he says. "Don't let anyone get you mad or throw you off your kilter because you want to ride that wave all the way up."

Nelson swears by Chinese alchemy, which tells him to conserve his sexual energy for three days before the waxing moon. (I did not ask what happens to the surplus of stored sexual energy during the waning crescent.)

The most eye-catching performer in the circle is a bellydancer named Perizada.

Her long black hair twirls in circles with the pink and purple scarves in her hands. Later she hoopla-hoops, and after that she demonstrates her trade, oscillating her hips while chiming miniature cymbals affixed to her fingers. Her white-bearded partner wears all black, including a bandana tied around his forehead like a Samuri.

The energy in the drumming circle ebbs and flows. "It's like an ocean. It goes up and down," says Leandra Urbigait who makes the trip up from Waxhaw and tells me it's well worth it. "When I dance, I feel so connected to everything. I feel like part of this huge working machine. I don't know. It just gives me this happy-joy-freedom feeling."

It's Sherry Walsh's second time at the circle. Last time it was bigger. There were 20 to 30 drums instead of only eight tonight. Walsh stands with the spectators by the crosswalk and blows a round stone flute. "It's so primal," she says of the circle's appeal to her.

While the fire dancer takes a break, I ask him if he began practicing with fire. "Oh God no," he answers. Practice occurs with glow sticks or other non-flammables until you stop hitting yourself.

"I'm going to light my dick on fire," he announces to no one in particular, then grabs the fire sticks and does riskier moves where the sticks make contact with his ankles and shins (fortunately, his unmentionables stayed out of harm's way).

I ask a policeman who is looking on inquisitively what he thinks of this bohemian gathering in front of the symbol for the mainstream, conservative suit-and-tie mentality of our city.

"Freedom of speech," Officer Tinsley says, "just like the guy over there (he points to the gospel-singing man). They both get permits from the city." Then he tells me, "The skateboarder dudes get mad. This is normally their spot. When the drummers come, they ride around and cause trouble."

A traditional Catawba drum is made with deer skin on one side and cow hide on the other. "The drum is like the heartbeat," Anna Brown a native Catawba tells me. "It brings something else out of you. It's spiritual.

At the Shiele Museum's display of Catawba culture a couple of weekends ago, four Catawba and a Navajo demonstrated Native American drumming and dancing. The high pitch chanting, known as a straight song, did not contain actual words and was made by keeping the mouth wide open. One of the drummers, Jered Canty, pressed on his Adam's apple to help make the shrill noise. Since the style of chanting can be rather abusive on the throat, the chanters stuck a piece of yellow root in their mouths to numb their pipes. If the roots are in short supply, they'll use Halls cough drops.

Dancing usually goes along with the drumming. Most dances feature little hip movement and very active feet. The wife of one of the drummers demonstrated a healing dance. Her jingling dress was adorned with 365 hanging ornaments. Traditionally, the dress was made with deer toes (by my math that would require 36 and a half deer for one dress), but in modern times, old snuff cans have been used.

Canty performed a men's traditional song that was done by warriors upon their return from battle to release the vicious energy they had been expending and to apologize to the creator for taking human lives. In fact, the dance is still done today by tribesmen who return from Iraq.

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